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Urgent need to tackle SA’s diabetes crisis

Published Nov 14, 2021

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URGENT action is needed to confront the diabetes tsunami so that South Africa is never again caught off guard and dealt a hefty blow like the health challenge faced during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Patrick Ngassa Piotie sounded the alarm bell during his address at the Inaugural South African Diabetes Summit 2021 hosted by the University of Pretoria Diabetes Research Centre and the Diabetes Alliance.

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With one in nine adults living with diabetes, South Africa has the highest prevalence of diabetes in Africa, according to new figures released by the International Diabetes Federation. More than 4 million adults in the country are affected by the condition.

Diabetes is a comorbidity which increases the risk of death if those diagnosed with the disease contract Covid-19.

To address the diabetes crisis in the country, delegates at the online summit this week created a charter ahead of World Diabetes Day today. This year’s theme is Access to Diabetes Care – If Not Now, When?

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“We have decided to act and confront the diabetes tsunami so that South Africa is never again unprepared when facing a health challenge similar to the Covid-19 pandemic,” explained Piotie.

World Health Organisation data shows several factors, such as an ageing population, economic transition and urbanisation associated with nutrition transition and obesity, have contributed to the increased diabetes prevalence as well.

“In South Africa, the number of SA adults with diabetes has soared to more than 4.5 million people,” warned Cape Town-based endocrinologist Dr Zane Stevens.

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He said this global disease was worsened by a lack of exercise among people, together with high consumption of carbonated drinks and foods high in carbohydrates, have contributed to unhealthy eating.

"We recommend a diet low in saturated fat and high in fibre. It should include grains and plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as good fats such as olive oil, flaxseed, and walnuts. It’s important to avoid processed foods,” he said.

Chief Specialist Scientist Professor Christo Muller at the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) observed that: “In these studies, aspalathin, improved insulin activity, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels, by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, are both causal factors that underlie the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

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The South African Diabetes Summit took note of the current diabetes situation and aimed at producing a Diabetes Charter that allowed all interested parties to improve the South African response to the diabetes epidemic.

“This November, instead of just telling people about diabetes in South Africa, we have invited all those living with and working with diabetes to join us in co-creating SA’s first Diabetes Charter,” said Bridget McNulty, chairperson of Diabetes Alliance South Africa and a co-founder of Sweet Life Community.

Piotie said the Diabetes Summit was also an opportunity to officially introduce the University of Pretoria Diabetes Research Centre as an advocate for sustainable, evidence-based and person-centred care for people living with diabetes.

The Centre will endeavour to improve the lives of South Africans living with diabetes through research and innovation.

The Diabetes Alliance includes organisations of people living with diabetes, research and tertiary institutions, healthcare providers, professional associations, pharmaceutical companies and NPOs, all of whom are committed to improving the diabetes response in South Africa.

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